Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis go head to head in a political race dominated by the lowest common denominator. It provides the expected laughs but also an unexpected undertone about the big business state of contemporary American politics.
The Campaign is the sort of comedy audiences have come to expect from Will Ferrell. While his last film was the bold, and quite funny, Casa de mi Padre filmed almost entirely in Spanish, The Campaign is more in line with Ferrell’s hits like Anchorman and Step Brothers. Fortunately, it’s similarly solid. Finding Ferrell in the more villainous role as incumbent Congressman Cam Brady, Ferrell can go off on his ad-libbed tangents but the audience doesn’t have to be on his side, which can sometimes be his weakness. His improvised diatribes can be trying at times but allowing the audience to laugh at him instead of with him all the time creates a nice barrier that allows him to go off the rails and adds purpose to the film.
Galifianakis plays Ferrell’s foil, Marty Huggins, the polar opposite of Brady’s seasoned, adulterous and rough character. While Huggins comes from a strong Republican family, especially his father Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox), he’s the apple that fell far from the tree. Fully clad in crocks and pleated jeans, with two pugs in tow, Galifianakis fits Marty with an effeminate voice and gait that’s far from Brady’s inherent masculinity. His love for their small North Carolina town manifests itself in his job as director of the Tourism Center, which, obviously, has few visitors.
But when Brady initially runs unopposed two sleazy CEOs, The Motch Brothers (Dan Akroyd and John Lithgow), decide to find an opponent who will go along with their wish to open Chinese sweatshops in the town so they can save on overseas shipping. Of course they realize the naive Marty Huggins could be their ticket. The optimistic Huggins is thrilled at first to have someone believe he could represent his town, but it will come at a cost. New campaign manager Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) makes it clear that his current lifestyle will have to go. Out go the “socialist” pugs and in come the golden retrievers and rifles. His entire private and public life are flipped upside down as he prepares to become more manly, and more like the cliche Republican candidate.
At first this change goes against Marty’s better instincts, but soon he’s taken into the bloody duel with Brady. As Brady ups the ante on what he’s willing to do to win, so does Marty. What’s most surprising about the film is it’s honest look at politics in America. It posits that behind every candidate is big business, working to get their interests approval in Washington. Or there are politicians like Brady who don’t have their town’s best interests at heart and only care about winning and having the title “Congressman.” Marty is put forth as the “good guy” of the bunch but by bending to every whim of Wattley and the Motch Brothers he’s no more clean than Brady. For a comedy, it’s a pretty pessimistic and cynical view of politics — but that’s precisely the point of a satire.
It never really gets too deep or philosophical about the political machine, rather it points out the reality of politics as a “business” by lambasting the entire process through comedy. Galifianakis shines as the overly idealistic but compromised Marty who, despite being completely used, learns how to become a viable candidate. It’s refreshing to see Ferrell in the bad guy role, doling out the one liners but having the joke on him is a refreshing change of pace.
While humorous and topical, it does have some problems. The editing can feel rushed at times, with the plot moving just a bit quicker than it probably should. Because of this, some plot points don’t feel as earned as they could be but at 85 minutes it’s a quick ride. Despite the pacing issue and some flat jokes, it’s a nice little comedy that’s commenting on real issues within America.